Mark Ryden's Tree Show Embraces His Golden Bear
By Michael Cervin
|"A stricken tree, a living thing, so beautiful, so dignified, so admirable in its potential longevity, is, next to man, perhaps the most touching of wounded objects. " -Edna Ferber, Playwright
"Trees, like the giant sequoias, can inspire religious owe in people," Mark Ryden tells me, his voice soft and emotive. "Other people see lumber." I sit across from Mark at his studio in Los Angeles. His new show, The Tree Show, for lack of a better title, opens in four days, and he hasn't finished yet. There are new oil paintings from this master fine artist, working sketches of graphite on paper, paintings on wood, a diorama, and a funky installation with the mythological Cernerrous (the horned Celtic god of fertility, life, and animals) in the shape of a weird baby doll ensconced in a treelike case, with antlers, and lots of wood. "The show is about the human relationship to nature," Ryden muses. 'When Christianity plowed over paganism, man was seen as dominant over nature and we lost our spiritual connection to the natural world around us."
People have been waiting anxiously-since 2003-for Ryden's latest exhibition. The Michael Kohn Gallery, which hosts the show, has already spoken with Ryden about a follow-up show. "It's the last thing I want to hear about." Ryden's voice is weary, his shoulders caving slightly. Then he bolts upright, his eyes alive. "But I have ideas. I'm already working on new drawings."
His rise from commercial album cover art for well-known, as well as forgettable, records-Michael Jackson, Four Non Blondes, and Ringo Star, among others-has been a meteoric ascent. In 10 years he's become one of the most sought after painters. "Mark's work is represented worldwide; his canvases sell to an international roster of clients for upwards of a million dollars; he's had a museum survey while still in his 30's, and he was the best attended exhibition to date at the Frye," Robin Held says, chief curator at the Frye Museum in Seattle, host of Ryden's Wondertoonel Show in concert with the Pasadena Museum of California Art in Pasadena from 2004-2005. The Frye opened in l952, 11 years before Mark was born.
So why does the established art world appear reluctant to embrace Mark Ryden? "I think they resist because of the popularity of my work. That just turns some people off. It's like it's a sin," Ryden guesses. Kristen Anderson, owner of Roq La Rue Gallery in Seattle maintains, "Ryden's work contains aspects of kitsch culture that academics find unnerving. It's rooted in counter-culture history cyberspace, but not anymore. It's and symbols that you have to know just as well. As I searched for online something about. That makes it forums about Ryden, a dialogue harder to discuss if you aren't hip to came up that discussed several of it already." Maybe so. But it doesn't faze Mark. "I enjoy remaining an underground person," he contends. "I think most people in the 'real' art world have no idea who I am, even though thousands of people do."
And those thousands are growing. The Internet in general (yes, he can shut down eBay auctions), and MySpace in particular, is overflowing with hardcore loyalists, Rydenites, who claim him as their favorite artist. Does this obsessive fan base bother him? "You can't think about the outside world when you're making your art. I zone it out." He used to Google his name to see what would erupt from his paintings, paintings with girls in them, young girls, some naked. "These have got to be the biggest load of shit paintings ever," one peeved onliner wrote. "They're neat," wrote a nameless nother, filling the void with their thoughts, "but I'd rather have art that won't get me arrested for possessing child porn." Someone countered, 'Mark Ryden is neither a sicko nor a hack. He's a talented genius with a serious eye for the absurd and the divine."
There is humor and tragedy in everything according to Ryden. His use of imagery reflects that all subject matter is fair game.
'Obviously, each painting is rife with symbolic imagery," Anderson believes. "The appeal of Ryden's work is the almost unconscious reaction to classic archetypal imagery presented in unusual packaging. Numerology, alchemy, flora and fauna imagery that convey very specific allegorical meanings according to various cultures and mythologies are in each painting."
But that's what an art historian is supposed to say. Ryden, however, is less prosaic and more content to paint intuitively. He confesses, "I suppose Sophia's Mercurial Waters pushed it a little." In this painting from his Bunnies and Bees show, a pale naked girl squeezes her breast, propelling liquid into the mouth of a tiny happy elephant as Jesus looks on. "I got this sweet email the other day that somebody wanted to order a painting like Sophia,” says Mark '"I love this painting,' the person wrote, 'and it makes me smile, but can I order it without the squirty thingy, and without the girl naked?' " Mark laughs, shaking his head. He's not a vending machine people can plug in their buck into and get out what they want. He won't compromise on his imagery. "Even with Little Boy Blue [a pastel colored tyke riding his tricycle wearing a swastika and a foul expression], I realized I would push some buttons. The swastika is the most graphic, powerful symbol mankind has come across. That's what intrigued me about doing the painting. I wanted to do it, not in red and black, but in pink and blue." Of course, those who know history understand that long before the Nazi regime abducted the swastika, it had been used for 3,000 years by various cultures as a positive symbol. Mostly, though, Ryden likes the look of things. "I go to swap meets often," he says. "I'll find a thing - book, picture, or object -that just gets me going. I don't paint from a void." Of course, half the fun of any Mark Ryden painting is uncovering what he has deliberately hidden. It's a Where's Waldo of sorts.
The Tree Show has elusive imagery and symbolism like most of Ryden's work, but it's scaled back. That is, unless you consider Fetal Trapping in Northern California, where a miniature Lincoln delivers the placenta from a tree as a redhaired girl in patent leather shoes observes. There's an environmental feeling to the show, I theorize. Ryden shrugs his shoulders. "The point is, these amazing living trees, that took thousands of years to grow, some people want to cut them down-the faster the better. There's so few of these great trees left." The Tree Show emphasizes the tree as savior and tormentor. General Sherman, a painting of the famed General Sherman sequoia in the Sequoia National Forest, stands majestically tall and proud, as laughably insignificant humans wander around at the base. By contrast, Girl Eaten by a Tree is pretty much summed up by its title; two girls stand by, horrified, as a voracious conifer devours their companion. Additionally, Ryden has painted the faces of several young girls, wood nymphs, on slabs of wood. This is not an original idea. "Even after I was underway with my show, I started noticing that there were other tree shows," he said. "It kind of freaked me out because I like to be unique and different. I'd hate to look like I'm following a trend. But then I realized there's a collective consciousness. It's not that people are copying each other, but there's a vibe out there." And if one person has the idea, so do others. "There are many artists who have work similar to mine, and people say, 'God, aren't you freaked out by this person copying you?' I think it would be incredibly egotistical to think I started it, I own it. It's just in the air. We're all connected."
He's connected with his "one true love," artist Marion Peck as well. They met in Seattle five years ago. "Marion was a fan of my work and wanted to meet me. The magic of destiny took off. We feel like the luckiest people on earth. We're best friends. We're together night and day, and don't get tired of each other." And to be under the microscope of scrutiny you need all the friends you can get. Kenton Nelson, another well-known artist, who also exhibits internationally, though with a vastly different style, was acquainted with Ryden when they both had studios at Castle Green in Pasadena. "Mark is one of the finest and most intelligent painters I know. He owns the style in which he works, despite his followers and imitators. Mark continues to out-do himself," Nelson says. Wesley Jessup, executive director of the Pasadena Museum of California Art, told me that Wondertoonel was "one of the most successful shows" at the museum. "He's too obvious, there's not enough subtly," some museum board members bemoaned. "But we were proud to be showing it," Jessup says. "Mark's work is strange and different-and that was the attraction. He's a craftsman, a perfectionist." Robin Held of the Frye claims Mark's work is "museum ready. His framed paintings are so historically inflected." The frames in The Tree Show are unlike any you have seen at a Ryden exhibit before. He designed the complex wood frames, which were hand carved with excruciating detail in Thailand. Some frames, however, like the one bordering Ghost Girl, are more gnarled root than polished frame. No detail is omitted. Not bad for a guy who "never had a real job," as Mark says. In fact, he was selling his art as early as junior high school. "I even sold one painting to the principal."
"The crowning factor with Ryden is that he is an artist in touch with his time," says writer Mike McGee. Grammy and Emmy award winning musician Danny Elfman, founder of Oingo Boingo and creator of theme songs for The Simpsons and the Batman movies, owns four of Ryden's paintings. "Mark is outside the envelope. He has such a bizarre sense of whimsy. It's this strangely absurd work combined with exquisite technique," extols Elfman. As a Los Angeles graffiti artist eloquently put it, "People aren't interested in the phony snob appeal of owning an abstract splatter painting or a pile of bricks.
They want something they can look at and live with. Something with humor, sex, and technique - something you couldn't hire any guy in the Home Depot to do for 20 bucks." And here is the rub. One may question Ryden's subject matter, but no one questions his talent. His attention to detail is impeccable. His mastery of the use of oil has grown exponentially since he graduated from Art Center College of Design. With The Tree Show there is a palpable sense of Ryden's evolving style, connectedness, and sensitivity to his subject matter. I asked if he felt The Tree Show was a departure for him. "I don't think it's a departure, but I have found myself identifying more as a California artist than even before." This is due, in part, to the fact that just a few hours drive from LA you can visit the General Sherman sequoia, the largest living tree on the planet. "A few hours more and you can see the oldest tree on earth, Methuselah, a bristlecone pine over 4,000 years old," Mark says. Another aspect of the show encompasses the human love of tourist attractions. "We take our children to places like Yosemite National Park (Half Dome is featured in Allegory of the Four Elements) to look at trees like animals in a zoo," he notes. It's clear that Mark is affected by the pending loss of open space, the lack of balance between humans and their natural world, and the disregard for the spiritual connection to nature. "George W Bush is trying to allow logging in the protected Sequoia National Forest," he says, incredulously. "It's mind-blowing." Perhaps this is why in Logging Truck, Ryden paints a semi-truck filled with recently felled tress being driven by someone who looks like Satan.
Interesting to note is that Ryden's home, a 1920s house built with a stone exterior and interior of hardwood floors and wood built-ins, reflects a sense of connectedness to his own natural environment. Yes, his home and studio are filled with stuff; trinkets, doll heads, curios, oddities, and some really cool things. The 'non-TV room" offers a table with a row of Silly Putty cans at the ready. The TV room was filled with art by Mark's brother, KRK Ryden, Mark's "inspiration." Both Marion and Mark apologized to me for "the place being a mess"; however, I suspect it's usually like that, and that too is cool. What intrigued me most, though, was when we talked in his studio. I sat with my back to the window and Ryden sat across from me, facing the window that looked into the backyard. During our conversation I couldn't see into his eyes, as I would have wished. It wasn't his long stringy hair that obstructed my view, but the glasses he wore. His round spectacles reflected the mature trees outside in the yard, their arms reaching out as if to welcome someone into a place of wonder and awe. A place not unlike home.